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Some along NASA Road 1 left marooned

The Houston Chronicle
RUTH RENDON; Staff
May 25, 1992

Webster residents voted against bonds to pay for the city's share of expanding NASA Road 1, and state funds for highway projects are dwindling. But neither fact is keeping officials of other cities along NASA Road 1 from trying to convince the highway department to proceed with plans to expand the road. But the NASA Road 1 project, as well as other highway projects throughout the state, is on hold, said Janelle Gbur, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation.

A mandate from the Legislature for the department to re-evaluate its list of priority projects and a federal transportation bill passed last year ""put a whole new twist on how highway construction work is funded,'' Gbur said. The changes brought on by the federal bill -- a restriction to the amount that can be spent for doing added-capacity work -- keeps the NASA Road 1 project from being a top priority, she said. The highway department had hoped to start the project in 1989 and have it completed before the scheduled Oct. 16 opening of Space Center Houston, a tourist attraction at the Johnson Space Center.

Webster is the only community along the 7.7-mile stretch from Interstate 45 to Texas 146 that has not committed to paying 10 percent for the right-of-way costs. The $ 1.7 million bond issue that would have paid the 10 percent and the cost of relocating utility lines was defeated on May 2 by 16 votes. Voters, however, approved a $ 350,000 bond issue to pay for a pedestrian walkway across NASA Road 1 near three schools.

Other cities believe the expansion is important, not only for access to the space center but also as an evacuation route in case of a hurricane or flooding. "We feel that there is definitely a safety problem. We feel we've got to have that expansion," said Seabrook City Manager Chuck Pinto.

When the $ 60 million project was given federal approval in 1989, it was to be built with 75 percent in federal funds and the rest paid by the state and local entities. "Under the new federal bill, we do not have any specific dollar figures that we can count on just yet, and we won't until our commission gives us additional guidance," Gbur said. The highway commission, she said, is scheduled to meet next month.

Webster City Manager Al Holguin said the city agrees that improvements to NASA Road 1 are needed. However, he believes the highway department can alleviate traffic on the road by working on other outlets north of NASA Road 1 "This is something we have always contended: that the solution shouldn't totally be based on NASA Road 1," Holguin said. He said NASA Road 1 traffic could be eased by directing cars heading to the Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston onto FM 2351, Pineloch, El Dorado, Bay Area and Medical Center and then south to the center. "We feel once you start dispersing and expanding those other roadways, the present design and the enormity of the design for the expansion of NASA Road 1 could be cut back," he said.

Gbur said working on other routes would fall within the new federal bill restrictions because they are considered added capacity. The bill encourages the use of public transportation and mass transit systems, particularly in the Houston area where the Clean Air Act has put restrictions on pollution, she said.

For NASA Road 1, the expansion plans call for complete modification of the road at Interstate 45 and widening the road from four lanes to six lanes with a divider to Texas 3 Four lanes are scheduled to be expanded to eight lanes of divided roadway from Texas 3 to El Camino Real. Overpasses also are planned across Texas 3 and El Camino Real. The projected 42-month-long construction job also calls for six lanes to be built from the space center to Texas 146 in Seabrook. Some flood-prone areas are to be elevated to at least 10 feet above sea level. Seabrook officials have suggested the construction start at Texas 146 and move west toward the interstate.

But Gbur said such a plan would "be highly unlikely since the problem is at I-45 in Webster. It simply would not be a real practical utilization of the funds. "Quite honestly, there are many worthy projects around the Houston area we could do with the same money, go someplace else and do a completed facility to provide a good level of service and give it to people who actually want it," she said. "We need to remember that with just so much money to go around we're going to try to get the most for our buck and I don't think we could do that by piecemealing the NASA Road 1 job. " Already, the communities of Seabrook, Nassau Bay, El Lago and Taylor Lake Village have passed resolutions urging the highway department to proceed with the project. The communities have scheduled a joint public hearing for July 9 to discuss the project. The other cities along NASA Road 1 -- Friendswood, Houston, Nassau Bay, Pasadena, El Lago, Taylor Lake Village and Seabrook -- are not blaming Webster for the delay. "It's not the city of Webster's responsibility to build and maintain state highways," said David Stall, city manager for Nassau Bay. Added Pinto, "We are not at odds with the city of Webster. They had an election and they're doing what they think is right. "

Like Webster, the city of Seabrook must relocate utility lines. The city had planned to move the trunk sewer line while the road was expanded and keep the line within the purchased right-of-way to save on land-acquisition costs. But since the road project has stalled, the city is proceeding with its $ 2 million project to move the line within a purchased easement along NASA Road 1.If the dormant project is revised, the state will have to buy and relocate the sewer line, Pinto said.

 
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